Friday, February 28, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1974

The Contenders:

Jack Nicholson: Chinatown
Al Pacino: The Godfather Part II
Art Carney: Harry and Tonto (winner)
Dustin Hoffman: Lenny
Albert Finney: Murder on the Orient Express

What’s Missing

I’ve seen surprisingly few movies from 1974, and many of the ones I have seen are wholly inappropriate as Oscar nominations for Best Actor. That said, Gene Wilder had a damn fine year, starring in both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles and getting nothing for both of them. Both Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman are worth talking about for Young Frankenstein, but both are probably more supporting. Cleavon Little could certainly be in the conversation for Blazing Saddles. Walter Matthau could be in the conversation here for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and speaking of conversations, Gene Hackman seems like a large miss for The Conversation. Finally, El Hedi ben Salem would be a very interesting choice in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Albert Finney well enough, and Murder on the Orient Express has at least the guts of a good story, but the movie itself is actually pretty dull in a lot of respects. It’s a straight procedural, and while Finney is good as Poirot, pretty much all he does is interview people. For what it is, it’s a fine performance, but I don’t think it belongs as one of the five best male performances of its year. If we’re leaving out both of Gene Wilder’s performances, what gets in damn well ought to be as good as you can find, and that’s not this performance.

4. Just like I like Albert Finney, I also like Art Carney, but there was no real reason to give him the Oscar for Harry and Tonto. It’s a nice little performance in a sweet and harmless little film, but to think that he could have earned an Oscar for this is absolutely bizarre. The film itself is little more than a character study of a very quirky old man. Carney gives it his all, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with what he does, but there’s also nothing particularly grand or surprising. He’s good. It’s fine. But there’s no way it was Oscar-worthy.

3. Dustin Hoffman is very good in Lenny, and this is probably the first nominated performance that I would want to keep, although I wouldn’t give it the top prize. This is a film that is far bigger than the performance of one person, or even all of the people. The best parts of the film, and the things I wanted more of, were the bits of stand-up from Lenny Bruce. Hoffman manages to capture a great deal of a much larger than life personality, though. He deserves to be in the conversation, but not as the winner.

My Choices

2. In a lot of years, I would hand this to Jack Nicholson for a drop-dead performance in Chinatown without even thinking about it. Nicholson plays the tough guy here, but one who is terribly broken and wounded, and forced to spend much of the film acting through that bandage on his face. It humanizes Jake Gittes and makes him real. It’s one of those roles where I legitimately can’t think of anyone else who could play it. Nicholson is just about perfect in it, and in just about every other year of this decade, he’d be my hands-down winner.

1. However, Nicholson gave us this gem of a performance in the same year that Al Pacino gave us The Godfather Part II, the quintessential Pacino performance. He’s had a lot of great ones and while the joke is always the sort of manic “Attica! Attica!” or “Hoo-ah!” Pacino, he’s an actor capable of great range and subtlety. There are few roles that give him that opportunity like this one, and it’s a damn shame he didn’t win for this. That he didn’t almost certainly is what caused him to win for Scent of a Woman. Pacino deserves better, and so do we.

Final Analysis


  1. Well three out of five isn't too bad and those top three are very fine indeed but I'd agree that the two you place at the bottom shouldn't have made the cut.

    I do love Murder on the Orient Express very much but it's a complete star vehicle for all the main players and a fashion & design dream requiring those stars personas to do a lot to fill in their characters. Finney ventures the furthest from his recognizable area, which is perhaps why he was singled out, but fun though he is it's not worth a nomination.

    Art Carney won on sentiment. He's about as good as he could be in the movie but for what he was up against there is no way he should have won.

    I'm not usually a fan of Nicholson, especially as the years passed, but he is extraordinarily great in Chinatown. Had he won I wouldn't have complained.

    I'm a bigger fan of the Pacino of this period, recently when he lets the shouting do the work...not so much, and like Nicholson he is very, very fine in Godfather II. Maybe its my less than enthusiastic feeling for the films which makes him a runner-up. I would have rather seen him take the top prize for Dog Day Afternoon.

    My winner would be Dustin Hoffman for the bleak, messy Lenny. He is masterful and compelling. I didn't like the Lenny he showed us very much but thanks to his work I was never less than fascinated watching him go down the rabbit hole. He's matched every step of the way by Valerie Perrine, I was disappointed she didn't go supporting-Honey was a major part of the story but she disappears for chunks of time in the film-I'm sure she would have won there and rightly so.

    I'm glad you mentioned Walter Matthau for Pelham 123. He made it look so easy but his performance is quite layered. I'm not that big a fan of Young Frankenstein nor Blazing Saddles but Gene Wilder particularly in the first is brilliant. He is a clear miss.

    The only other actor I'd add is Michael Moriarty in Report to the Commissioner, a really terrific movie that I'd highly recommend if you haven't seen it already. But Hoffman will always remain my winner.

    1. Hoffman wouldn't be a bad choice. He's genuinely great in the film. He's as good as he ever is, and that's saying quite a bit, because I like Hoffman in general.

      Pacino could be great, but I think he requires a lot of direction to rein him in. That's not a dig at the man--Robin Williams was very much the same way. With someone guiding the performance, Pacino is so compelling. I look at films like Insomnia, for instance, or his work in The Irishman as examples of what he can do with someone not awed by his star power.

  2. Pacino should've won that year or Jack Nicholson for Chinatown. Yet, my pick would've been Gene Hackman for The Conversation as he was just great in that film. I haven't seen Harry and Tonto and Murder on the Orient Express so I can't say anything about their performances. Here is how I would've ranked my list of Best Actor of 1974:

    1. Gene Hackman-The Conversation
    2. Warren Oates-Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    3. Jack Nicholson-Chinatown
    4. Giancarlo Giannini-Swept Away
    5. El Hedi ben Salem-Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

    Other performances I would've put in consideration include Pacino for The Godfather Pt. II, Gene Wilder for Young Frankenstein, Erland Josephson for Scenes from a Marriage, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Dirk Bogarde for The Night Porter, Vittorio Gassman for Scent of a Woman, Keith Carradine for Thieves Like Us, Elliott Gould & George Segal for California Split, Clint Eastwood for Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, and Sonny Chiba for The Street Fighter.

    1. Murder on the Orient Express is fun, but if you've seen the much more recent one with Branagh, you've seen the same story with better mustaches. If you watch Harry and Tonto, your life will be no different afterwards. It's sweet and pleasant and that's pretty much it.

      I'd want Hackman in the mix. He'd absolutely make my top-5. For me, though, this is Pacino at his height. He's as good as he gets in the early-mid '70s. The Godfather through Dog Day Afternoon is a pretty great stretch.

    2. I can't agree about the new Orient Express. Branagh drained all the joy and style that the original possessed and turned it into a dour, ugly slog. Hopefully he won't do the same with Death on the Nile.

  3. Hackman takes this one for me. He deserved not only a nomination but also a win. This is career best from one of Hollywood's best.

    1. He's definitely a miss in the nominations. I don't know that he takes the win for me, but I want him in the race.